Not many people get the opportunity to do something twice for the first time. And very few people will do something again if they dismally failed at it the first time.
Lucky for me, my stubborn tenacity and drive to get it done, even if I have to try and fail, and try again, has put me in a position where I am today.
One year ago I attempted to conquer the Hell Of The South, a 121km mountain bike race through the toughest, steepest part of the Western Cape. And I crashed, burned and did +-45kms in 7.5hrs (the slowest I have ever done anything in my life). I was distraught. But when the pain of my failure started to lift (with the help of an amazing Roosterkoek filled with apricot jam) I made a plan.
I was determined to do this. To get to the finish line. But I had a fundamental problem. I had no idea on how to do it. So I contacted the only person I know that finished this race and asked her to be my coach, my partner on my journey to #SurviveAttakwas. Lucky me, she said yes!
So the journey to Attakwas started. Since then, I have done 5328km with 43920m of elevation on my trusty bike (most of which was on an IDT)! I have cried, I have bombed out, I have felt like the fastest most incredibly strong person in the world. And I have gained a level of confidence in my ability to do more, to get over the hill, to compete with myself. My investment in a journey to fitness has resulted in personal growth that I can’t even begin to explain to anyone.
So how’d I get here? Ready to do this again? I surrounded myself with incredibly strong female cyclists. I followed on their tails, learnt how to move, how to climb and more importantly how to believe in my ability. Their support, their commitment to this incredible sport and their constant willingness to encourage other women to succeed is incredible.
I mentioned the IDT. I knew I had many training hours to do - and realistically couldn’t ride outside every day. So I hooked my bike up to a Wahoo Kikr, subscribed to Zwift, and committed to the workouts prescribed by my coach. And guess what?? It sucked. Being inside going nowhere with constant resistance (ERG is a beast) is tough. Mentally you are challenged every time you get on it. Physically, you get off the trainer post workout and you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus. But it made me stronger. Physically. Mentally. It transformed me.
I also made a commitment to myself to learn more. I spent hours at Wolwespruit Trail Park learning basic and intermediate skills with my coach and on my own - how to climb, how to go faster, how to not cry when I fall, and how to trust my bike. And how to trust myself.
So here I am. Ready.
The day before Attakwas I woke up to rain falling softly outside and it hit me. Tomorrow is the ride of a lifetime. Sobering thought. I had lost a skewer spacer on my front wheel during the travels - and Eugene from Cycleworx Sedgefield made a plan to get me through the race - but I still needed to know it was going to work. So I got on my bike and did my pre-race openers workout (1hour with 4-6 2min low rpm high gear sets) which in Sedgefield meant a lot of challenging hills.
Sedgefield Beach Post pre-race opener ride warmup
I know my training effort this year has made a difference because one of the hills I did last year was substantially easier this year. And according to Strava - I even got a PR going up and down it!! It’s all about marginal gains... My bike was good to go. And so was I.
Pre-race nerves are a real thing. I had the same nightmare for the second time. I dreamt my alarm went off at 3am. But I hit snooze. And so did my buddy. And when I woke up it was 6.30. And the race start is 1hr30 away. All my training amounted to squat because I needed to snooze. I was inconsolable. So when my alarm actually went off at 3am - I jumped out of bed...
My 2020 Race No
Wrapping up my W2W finger injury for the race (and rocking my #DirtyHeartSquad kit)
So, we got to the start on time. My training had prepared me to stand at the start for the first time with hardly any fear. Just excitement for the challenge up ahead. Out batch was called to the arch and we were off!!
The next 3.40 hrs passed in a blur. The terrain was so different from last time. The soft sand in the Outeniqua reserve had been replaced with rocks and ruts - and throughout the ride to WP1 I just kept my head clear and my thoughts focused on maintaining a 15km average. And not stopping until WP1 (really good advice from my coach). I enjoyed every climb (even the really technical one I walked up) and managed to make it through the saw dust covered tracks before WP2.
At WP2 I was welcomed by my buddy Nat! She was so stoked to see me (I was so grateful to talk to someone after 2hrs alone in the Outenquia reserve)! She quickly gave me my refill food supply and Tailwind top up and then told me I had just made cut off. I was so oblivious to time during my focused attempt to keeping an average I didn’t realize how long I’d been out there.
The Marshalls at WP2 gave a warning to put on a jacket (which I did) because the weather had changed on the Kloof - warning of cold and rain. So I set off, ready to conquer the Attakwas Kloof.
Straight out of WP2 the climbing and the route completely changed. Manageable climbs became more technical. Loose rock, step ups and gravel abounded. And the 1st downhill was so loose I think I went down there slower than up. But I carried on. My average pace slowed to 10.4kms per hour. But I carried on. And then it started getting cold. And wet. And colder. Eventually my legs couldn’t move in the cold. So I got off and walked. And walked. And slipped. Each step my HR dropped and I got colder. But I was determined to get through it. Determined to get to the end.
And then the race sweep (Juan) caught up to me just before the start of the climb up to the Attakwas Kloof sign. He asked me if I wanted to go on and I said (teeth chattering) that I was going to finish this race. He got one of the route markers to push my bike up while I walked. At the top - he asked if I wanted to carry on. I told him I was going to finish this race. So I got back on and tried again.
I rode down the hill and at the next climb I was even colder than before. I couldn’t pedal because I kept on slipping in the mud so I walked up. Juan caught up and asked if I wanted to carry on. He gave me an option. Stop, get warm or go up the KOM and touch base. I carried on. And got colder. My heart rate dropped lower despite the steepness of the KOM climb. My legs wouldn’t work. Each step clunkier than the first. Each step I got colder and wetter. But I was determined. I wanted to finish this race.
When I got to the top of the KOM, I barely noticed the misty landscape. Juan told me to get in the car. I was pre hypothermic. My foggy cold brain and body knew that my race was over. So I got in.
The Biogen guys at the top gave me a #BeYourBest shirt to change in. The other racer in the car shared his space blanket so I could get warm. The heater in the Bakkie was put on max temp (sorry guys for the sauna). I was grateful for the car, grateful for the kindness of strangers. But I knew I was done. My race was over. All my training this past year had resulted in a DNF. And you know what... it was ok.
Sitting in the sweep vehicle 4x4ing slowly through the Attakwas Kloof (thanks Juan for the mad 4x4 skills) gave me time to think. I was disappointed sure. But in comparison to last year - the sense of failure had evolved. Marc Manson wrote that the pain of failure is what makes us better at what we do. And I suddenly got what that meant.
I had evolved as a person this year. The Lee who started the race in 2019 and the one who started in 2020 were two different people. I was mentally focused without a shred of doubt in my ability to get to the end. I trusted in the preparation work I did (riding and countless hours of strength work - more than I had ever done before). I trusted the investment of my coach in my journey. I believed in myself.
I managed to tackle the same sections as last year with more confidence. I rode each downhill like a bad ass 😉 and was able to get up and over climbs I walked last year. I was able to recover from effort so quickly that I could carry on. The brutal riding of the Attakwas did not beat me this time. The weather did. And that was 100% out of my control.
I was alone for 90% of my race. Actually stone cold alone in the most beautiful part of this country. And it was ok. I wasn’t scared not even for a second. I was focused on what I was doing. And I was ok.
My coach told me something interesting about racing. That any race is not about how fast you go, or where you place. It’s about getting to the end (or not) and being able to say to yourself I couldn’t have done anything more. I did the best I could do. I went as fast as I could. I did everything in my power to make myself proud of what I have done. And to be ok with that.
Failing to finish. Wow. A year ago that meant hours of inconsolable crying. This year it meant a pat on the back. I was proud of what I did. I was proud of how far I’d come. And I was proud of how I was able to fail. And not hate myself for it.
So despite the DNF, I #SurvivedAttakwas.
And to every woman that crossed that finish line (all 68 of you), you are my heroes. The technicality and brutality of that race means you are incredible, you are strong and you are capable. To every woman who DNF: this experience will make you stronger. You will go on to become a better version of you. I did.
Now I’m ready to tackle the next race. And for another year of being part of this incredible community of cycling rockstars!
All my love,
(proud member of the #DirtyHeartSquad)